Monday, June 3, 2013

St. Francis of Assisi by G. K. Chesterton

Source of book: I own this.

I read Chesterton fairly frequently. To me, he seems one of those larger than life characters that could never fit into a box - or perhaps even the world itself. His ideas are unpredictable, and he always forces me to look at things from an unexpected angle. If I were to choose one person from history to spend an evening with, he would be near or at the top of the list.

I chose this book in part because of the choice of the current Pope to take the name of Francis. Although I am a Protestant, not a Catholic, (and not wedded to a particular denomination, for that matter) I still follow important developments in the other branches of the Church.

St. Francis was a rather interesting person, and his story is fascinating. However, do not read this book intending to get a clear idea of the life of its subject. Chesterton assumes that you already know the basics of the story, which meant that I had to brush up on it myself. Chesterton rather wishes to comment on the significance of the man and his ideas, and explain to the modern mind the context of that man’s works and ideals.

In fact, one of the best things about this book is that Chesterton understands that context is vitally important for understanding the past, and that we can’t simply analyze historical figures as if they existed in the same cultural context as today. (I’ve written before about how this tends to lead to a idolization of past cultures, while ignoring the reality, especially for those who lacked power in those societies.) Chesterton strikes a good balance in this book, neither worshiping the Middle Ages nor unfairly condemning them. I believe the reason is that Chesterton is always brimming with love and good humor. He really can’t bring himself to hate anyone - even the villains in his works of fiction. In that respect, he was a modern counterpart to St. Francis, at least in his good will toward his fellow men.

A great example of this was Chesterton’s friendship with George Bernard Shaw, his philosophical opposite. In Heretics, Chesterton devoted an entire chapter to the dismantling of Shaw’s beliefs, all the while expressing his personal admiration. I mention Shaw, because one of the key points of this book is the idea that being charitable to the poor is much, much different than loving the poor. This is so very true in our modern society, when we truly believe that material success is the result of “godliness,” and that thus, we middle class people are truly “better” than the poor, even as we generously attempt to better their condition. (This is true of both liberals and conservatives.) Chesterton correctly identified the problem as being due, in large part, to thinking of “the poor” in a collective sense, rather than as individuals. Humans in the same sense that we are.

Chesterton saw this impulse in St. Francis, and attributed our modern bewilderment at his often bizarre actions to our lack of understanding of the true nature of religion. To the modern, rational mind, religion is a philosophy. (To the atheist, it is an irrational, mad, philosophy at best.) Chesterton noted that the things that St. Francis did resembled the crazy things that people do when in love.

He was a Lover. He was a lover of God and he was really and truly a lover of men; possibly a much rarer mystical vocation. A lover of men is very nearly the opposite of a philanthropist; indeed the pedantry of the Greek word carries something like a satire on itself. A philanthropist may be aid to love anthropoids. But as St. Francis did not love humanity but me, so he did not love Christianity by Christ. Say, if you think so, that he was a lunatic loving an imaginary person; but an imaginary person, not an imaginary idea.

The same impulse that leads to sacrifice in the name of romantic love led to the sacrifice of asceticism in St. Francis.

Men will ask what selfish sort of woman it must have been who ruthlessly exacted tributed in the form of flowers, or what an avaricious creature she can have been to demand solid gold in the form of a ring: just as they ask what cruel kind of God can have demanded sacrifice and self-denial. They will have lost the clue to all that lovers have meant by love; and will not understand that is was because the thing was not demanded that it was done.

This is the meaning of love, that self-giving without the demand. It is the difference between legalistic systems that look to make God like us more than other people and the amazing things that people like St. Francis have done out of an abundance of love for the Creator. It is the difference between those who sort others into categories of acceptability and those who see others as having equal worth and value.

Later, Chesterton hints at the difference between true equality and condescending charity when he says that a Gentleman cannot be fully an egalitarian until he can quarrel with his servant.

In contrast, St. Francis truly seemed to have approached each person as an individual made in the image of God.

I have said that St. Francis deliberately did not see the wood for the trees. It is even more true that he deliberately did not see the mob for the men...He only saw the image of God multiplied but never monotonous. To him a man was always a man and did not disappear in a dense crowd any more than in a desert. He honoured all men; that is, he not only loved but respected them all. What gave him his extraordinary personal power was this; that from the Pope to the beggar, from the sultan of Syria in his pavilion to the ragged robbers crawling out from the wood, there was never a man who looked into those brown burning eyes without being certain that Francis Bernardone was really interested in him; in his own inner individual life from the cradle to the grave; that he himself was being valued and taken seriously, and not merely added to the spoils of some social policy or the names in some clerical document.

I found this book to be a bit convicting on this point. It is so easy to forget the person. To look at others as problems to be solved, rather than individuals, each with his or her own story.

St. Francis has been referred to as le Jongleur de Dieu. The Jongleur was a juggler, a musician, a clown, all rolled into one. A fool, perhaps. Chesterton makes much of this idea. Certainly, Francis was unafraid to be thought a fool or to do “foolish” things. Many of these, however, had a serious and oddly logical purpose. He is legendary, of course, for his refusal to own property, either individually or collectively - the socialist ideal. Chesterton points out that this would not have worked for everyone, as someone has to be responsible for the upkeep of the means of sustenance and shelter. However, for the particular point he was making, it did make sense for him.

His argument was this: that the dedicated man might go anywhere among any kind of men, even the worst kind of men, so long as there was nothing by which they could hold him.

A few more random thoughts from this book, which is full of stuff to ponder.

One of the incidents in St. Francis’ life that Chesterton dwells on is the episode with St. Clare. She was a seventeen year old girl, who ran away from her father to become a nun. (Francis assisted her escape.) Chesterton quite correctly points out that had she run away to elope, like Juliet at age fourteen, St. Francis would have been an analogue to Friar Lawrence. Again, by understanding religious passion as a form of romantic love, the choice makes sense. She would go on to form the counterpart to the Franciscan order. Chesterton’s take on this is interesting.

[W]e may at least assume that no friend of what is called the emancipation of women will regret the revolt of St. Clare. she did most truly, in the modern jargon, live her own life, the life that she herself wanted to lead, as distinct from the life into which parental commands and conventional arrangements would have forced her.

Chesterton was pretty conservative, and not much of a feminist, but he is gracious enough to grant the point. Women, too, are legitimate in desiring to make their own choices about their own lives. (Notwithstanding the Christian Patriarchists, who believe in the absolute control of daughters by their fathers and then husband, for example.)

I also liked Chesterton’s discussion of the difference between conquest and conversion. He notes this in a contrast between the worst impulses of the Catholic Church (particularly in the New World) and the approach of St. Francis. I think this debate still rages in conservative Christian circles, with a significant contingent still seeking political dominion.

In contrast to this attitude and quest for power, St. Francis said that he found the secret of life in being the servant and the secondary figure. I want to make this the goal of my own life - to be the world’s best second fiddle, as it were. To lead through service, not through domination.

I noted above the need for historical context to understand the writings of the past. Chesterton noted that this even applies to the very words of Christ.

It is a truism to say that Christ lived before Christianity; and it follows that as an historical figure He is a figure in heathen history. I mean that the medium in which He moved was not the medium of Christendom but of the old pagan empire; and from that alone, not to mention the distance of time, it follows that His circumstances are more alien to us than those of an Italian monk such as we might meet even to-day. I suppose that the most authoritative commentary can hardly be certain of the current or conventional weight of all His words or phrases; of which of them would then have seemed a common allusion and which a strange fancy. This archaic setting has left many of the sayings standing like hieroglyphics and subject to many and peculiar individual interpretations.

From my own experience in the legalistic labyrinth of the Patriarchy movement, I would say that there are many possible “peculiar individual interpretations” which take on a life of their own. The point is that we may well often have to admit that we really don’t know and understand everything that is written. We can do the best we can to understand the times and the illusions, but we are best served by a humility in our approach. We see and understand in part only, and our interpretations are not the final word. I love that Chesterton is willing to admit that fact. 

One line that stuck with me, and that I may quote on future occasions is this: “it is as rational for a theist to believe in miracles as for an atheist to disbelieve in them. In other words, there is only one intelligent reason why a man does not believe in miracles and that is that he does believe in materialism.”

There are a few points on which I decidedly did not agree with Chesterton. He was a Catholic, and I am a Protestant, so his views on the role and function of church hierarchy are bound to be different from mine. I also am not sure what to think about his views of the Middle Ages, although he at least doesn’t wish to return there.

The medieval world was far ahead of the modern world in its sense of the things in which all men are at one: Death and the daylight of reason and the common conscience that holds communities together. Its generalizations were saner and sounder than the mad materialistic theories of to-day; nobody would have tolerated a Schopenhauer scorning life or a Nietzsche living only for scorn. But the modern world is more subtle in its sense of the things in which men are not at one; in the temperamental varieties and differentiations that make up the personal problems of life.

There is some truth there, and he certainly identifies the way in which the modern life is easier on those who differ from the normal expectation. (See St. Clare, above.) I have my doubts about how much better the generalizations were, and wonder whether Chesterton’s fairly privileged upbringing might be a contributing factor. As always, in discussions about the past, one must not just look to the class of wealthy men, but must also look at the conditions of the serfs, one one risks falling into a nostalgia of self-interest.

As usual with Chesterton, his creative use of words was part of the pleasure.

First, I noted his use of “botheration,” which I associate primarily with a friend from New Zealand, for whom it was a multi-purpose imprecation.

Second, I had to look up “adumbrate.” It means, per the dictionary: 1) To give a sketchy outline of, 2) To prefigure indistinctly; foreshadow, 3) To disclose partially or guardedly, 4) To overshadow; shadow or obscure. It is related to “umbra,” or shadow. It’s fun to learn a new word.

One final thought that I am still pondering.

Every heresy has been an effort to narrow the Church.

Since the Catholic Church as historically regarded Protestantism as a heresy, and took great pains to exterminate those “heretics,” I am not sure exactly what Chesterton means by this, although in context, he applies it to the idea that St. Francis could not found his own religion for that reason. There was and is much Christianity apart from St. Francis and his followers. The Franciscan movement has its place and its truth and beauty, but it is not all there is to either. Had it limited Christianity to like minded followers, it would have become a heresy. Perhaps this might apply best to legalism in general. St. Francis followed Christ as he was called. Not everyone had or has the same calling. Once we decide that everyone must do as we do, we narrow the kingdom of God. Still thinking about this one.

As usual, Chesterton’s ideas have caused me to step back and think. Whether one agrees or disagrees with his points, it is impossible to not respect the originality of his thought, and his overflowing love and good cheer.

Note on the legacy of St. Francis:

The Franciscan order of friars is the most obvious. Father Junipero Serra, who founded the California mission system, was a Franciscan, as was Father Francisco Garces, who explored much of the Southwestern United States and discovered the Tejon pass, between the desert and the San Joaquin Valley, back in 1776. He is honored here in Bakersfield for the work he did in the area.

Also of note, the city of San Francisco was named after St. Frances. Also, the ill fated St. Francis dam, which broke in dramatic fashion.

Note on the poetry of St. Francis:

The best known poem that is believed with certainty to have been written by St. Francis is the Canticle of the Sun.

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!
All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.
To You, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your name.
Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and You give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens You have made them bright, precious and beautiful.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which You give Your creatures sustenance.
Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.
Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.
Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of You;
through those who endure sickness and trial.
Happy those who endure in peace,
for by You, Most High, they will be crowned.
Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks,
and serve Him with great humility.

Better known is his famous prayer, but it is not certain that he wrote it. Certainly, it is consistent with his writings and beliefs, but it may have been written at a later date, as it did not appear in print until the early 1900s.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

I am partial to John Michael Talbot’s musical setting of the prayer.

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